Celebrating 20 Years – Shelbi’s Story
Please be advised: this story contains accounts of abuse and sexual assault.
Shelbi felt a lot of stress after she and her boyfriend broke up—he would frequently tell her he was depressed and didn’t want to live anymore without her. Their relationship had been hard, especially towards the end. “It was an abusive relationship—mentally, emotionally,” she says. “We weren’t good for each other.”
When he reached out, she felt obligated to talk to him, even hang out with him, because she couldn’t imagine feeling responsible for his life ending. So when he came over to talk after their break-up, she allowed it. Even though it wasn’t what she wanted, she let him stay in her life because she thought it would help them both with the transition into being single—alone.
She didn’t expect him to assault her.
But he did.
After she was raped by her ex-boyfriend, Shelbi felt lost. “Things were very dark and twisty,” she says. “It’s hard to remember exactly how I decided to get help.”
She started at HOPE, a non-profit for domestic violence survivors in northern West Virginia. “I don’t really remember the whole process, but I know it was short and sweet,” says Shelbi. “HOPE provided therapy and a referral, and the people working there were super warm and kind. There was a calm and safe energy in the whole building. I wanted to run away. I wanted to move. I didn’t feel safe. And they said, ‘Well, we can come get you from wherever you are and bring you to your hearing.’ They were amazing and had such a positive impact in my journey. I’ve only mentioned a couple of things they did for me; they went above and beyond.”
After telling her story to HOPE staff, they referred her to Molly Russell, an attorney at Legal Aid of WV, to talk about more about her legal options for protection. Molly set up an appointment with Shelbi for her to come in and talk about her case.
“The first day we met, we went for a walk to make me more comfortable because I was feeling anxious,” says Shelbi. “She literally walked out of her way to make me feel comfortable. The legal part of my situation was incredibly difficult and intimidating. I came in knowing a little bit about law but nothing about rape. She made me feel safe and emotionally cared for and physically safe.”
Molly says she often has to take time to meet clients where they are, particularly when they have experienced trauma. “I could tell she was nervous,” says Molly. “Going for a walk seemed like a good way to get to know each other and give her a chance to get calm. We talked about ‘normal’ stuff; we didn’t talk about her case right away.”
Shelbi filed for an Emergency Protective Order, but it was denied by the Family Court. Molly appealed to the Circuit Court, where it was remanded back to Family Court. Again, Family Court denied the protective order, so Molly and Shelbi went to Circuit Court again, where it was finally granted.
“It’s unusual to go to four hearings for a case like this,” Molly says. It was a long process that wasn’t yet over. Shelbi’s ex appealed the case to the Supreme Court. “I got pregnant and had a child during this case if that gives you an idea of how unusually long it was.”
The Supreme Court handed down its decision on Shelbi’s case in January 2020. In it, Justice Workman wrote “’No’ means no in this state.”
By the time the case wrapped up, Shelbi had been working toward rebuilding her life for more than a year. She has been sober for 6 months from sleeping pills she was abusing as a coping mechanism; she lives with her husband and dog and is still doing the work to heal from the prints left in her life by trauma. It has been and will continue to be a difficult journey, but Shelbi is determined and empowered by her support system, which includes Molly’s check ins with her.
“I just want to touch on that quote: ‘no means no.’ Some of the men in the courtroom didn’t seem to grasp that,” says Shelbi. “In every aspect of your life, the word no is definitive. So in the bedroom, that word is definitive. Regardless of if you’re married to that person, you’re dating them, you were dating them, you were friends for a long time. NO means no, in every situation. It’s very important that people learn that. Knowing that my name and my story will be connected with that statement in West Virginia makes me want to cry tears of joy—something positive came out of what happened to me.”